The End of an Incredible Journey, but not how I expected it to be
After having spent nearly 150 hours playing Mass Effect 1, and 70 or so hours playing Mass Effect 2, I was understandably excited to hop right into the final chapter of Bioware's Epic Space Drama, Mass Effect 3. The question now becomes not one of "is the game good", because I think everyone can agree that there has never been any game quite like Mass Effect, that is so well made; however, the question is more "does the game reward those of you who have invested 100s of hours into the Mass Effect story, and do the choices that you have made in previous games impact you in this game?"
Well lets get the easy stuff out of the way. Mass Effect 3 looks great, sounds great, plays great, and feels great, but I think we all knew that coming in. Yes, there are occasional frame rate issues, and the game can occasionally misplaces a line of dialogue, but lets be honest, with a game of this scope and magnitude, it really doesn't detract from the overall experience. The facial models are great, the score is gripping, and combat is fluid, They have improved some things from previous games, and left some things unchanged, but technically this game is certainly a step forward, not backwards.
The story is pretty simple: you are Commander Shepherd, you are a galactic bad ass, and trillions of lives depend upon your actions. Quite frankly, at the outset, the stakes have never been set higher in any other video game. The reason for this is, is because you have come to care about other galactic species in other games, so you are not only fighting for mankind, but you are also fighting for every living breathing organism in the galaxy. Its a minor detail, but I honestly feel that these stakes make you weigh your choices that much more.
Simple as the story may be, however, the inter-personal stories between you and other characters can get a bit complicated. Characters may refer to old times from two games ago, and other massive gameplay set pieces are actually in motion, because of past choices you have made in other games. I feel that this really makes it hard for new players, which is ashame, because I realize that you need to go back and beat ME 1 and ME 2 before you can fully enjoy ME 3. This is a game meant for Mass Effect fans, and no one else.
That being said, the single biggest flaw with Mass Effect 3, is that the culmination of all the choices you have made in the past games does not branch off into multiple endings. Everything you have ever done up to this point pretty much means that you will save the galaxy. (SORRY TO SPOIL THE ENDING, BUT WHO DIDN'T SEE THAT COMING). All roads lead to Shepherd becoming the galactic savior. I really do not like this. What does the game teach you about making choices in life if the hundreds of choices you have previously made are always going to lead to the same outcome. I really would have liked to see an ending where you fail, where all of your efforts haven't been enough and you realize where you went wrong, because that is exactly how Shepherd would have felt if that had happened. I think back to great military operations from World War II such as Operation Barborassa and the invasion of Normandy (allusion to Shepherd's ship). Barborassa failed because Hitler stalled too much and was well into the Russian Winter by the time the siege of Moscow and Stalingrad took place, but had he not stalled it would have ended differently. Normandy succeeded, because the Germans thought the allies wouldn't invade at Normandy. Had the Germans made different choices in those two scenarios the war would have been a lot different, and the Nazis very well could have won. Many will argue that an ending where the galaxy is doomed isn't satisfying, but choice in video games is not about satisfaction, it is about understanding that actions have consequences. For instance, what if you had to make a choice to save one squad member when you were taking back Earth, say Ashley (my personal favorite), but the cost of that would be that it would take you longer to reach the citadel, and the result of that would be that you couldn't power the crucible in time, and you couldn't destroy the reapers. I really think I would have taken the time to save Ashley if I was faced with that choice. Then at the end of the game, when I had lost, I would seriously question my decision, but I don't feel that with any of my choices in the end. Its not because the ending was very vague, which I kind of liked, its just because it is clear that the ending was set in stone before you pressed start on your controller to play Mass Effect 1. This isn't something that a DLC ending designed to "provide more closure" can do, its just the way in which the ending is structured.
As for the controversial ending's content, I felt that the mysterious nature of the vague ending really asked some thought provoking questions. What is humanities place in the Universe, are we significant, are we insignificant, and can one person really save that many people? My only issue with it was that they only showed Anderson, Joker, and Liara, as Shepherd pondered his thoughts. I liked all of those characters, don't get me wrong, but there were characters I like a lot more. Honestly I feel like it would have been so much better, if they showed all of your crucial actions taken in the three games and all of the people you had lost to get to this point culminating at the end. It really would have made me satisfied with the content of the ending. Something like the final possession scene from the movie Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, something that was nostalgic, yet ultimate. I really would have liked seeing Mass Effect 1 choices of me telling Kaiden to sacrifice himself to set off the Nuke of Virmire, me allowing the Rachnai queen to live, or me choosing to let the council die; also seeing my companions get killed on the suicide mission from Mass Effect 2.
At the end of the day, Mass Effect really is a truly incredible series, unlike any that has come before it. That being said, however, it was so close to being hands down the greatest piece of video game storytelling I have ever experienced. The journey is incredible both in its lore, details, gameplay, and story, the ending is fun to experience, but I really don't think I wanted a fun ending in my game. I wanted my own unique ending that suited the choices that I had made in the past, and that was not what I got. It is still a very worthwhile game for anyone who played the previous two.